Robots For Material Removal
Cutting, trimming and machining are some of the newest application areas for robots, and with reshoring gathering pace they've emerged just in time to help address the looming skills shortage. While manufacturing companies have used robots for material handling, welding and paint spraying for decades it's taken advances in force control and machine vision to broaden their application beyond a few specialized material removal tasks. Today however, robots are cutting automotive headlining fabrics, trimming flash from plastic moldings, and polishing molds and stamping dies. Paint stripping and surface preparation is also proving a good application area -- even some light machining tasks can be performed by robots when cutting forces are low, as when routing wood or aluminum.
Trimming and deburring are more complex, requiring force control and often vision to handle variability in the size and position of the material to be removed. For deburring in particular, new compliant tool holders provide greater control over cutting loads and direction, creating a cleaner and more consistent edge. Related to deburring is die polishing -- the ability of the robot to follow a path repeatedly results in better consistency than the most skilled operator, meaning less variability in parts coming out of multiple dies.
Robotic material removal doesn't have to mean the robot holds the tool. Many applications work better when the robot holds the workpiece taking it to a fixed tool. This increases flexibility by allowing the robot to perform multiple operations. For example, a robot could retrieve a plastic molding from a die before passing it over a trimming tool to remove excess flash. The next steps might then be to move it under a nozzle dispensing a bead of sealant or adhesive and then place it onto an outfeed conveyor.
One of the biggest attractions of robotic material removal is the superior repeatability when compared with a human performing the same task. This results in lower quality-related costs, like scrap, rework, complaints and more consistent product. Another advantage is reduced expenditure on consumables -- removing the human factor means tools wear at a lower and more predictable rate. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) costs also fall, as there's less need for protective eyewear and earmuffs. Also on the health and safety front, trimming and deburring are often responsible for repetitive strain injuries, (including “vibration white finger”) so automation reduces that risk. However, for many manufacturers the biggest single benefit from using robots for cutting, trimming and machining is the ability to overcome a skills shortage. These jobs often have a high turnover, yet it takes time to develop the necessary skills. For companies who want to keep growing, robotic material removal is the way to go.
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